When the weekend rolls around and Vassar students tire of Deece pasta and Global Kitchen experiments, Arlington eateries are the typical go-to. Afterall, it only takes five to 10 minutes to walk off campus to enjoy a BurgerFi milkshake or share a large pizza pie from Bacios with friends.
With the inception of the Arlington Bucks program in Fall 2017, even students who otherwise could not afford to eat out can now do so on a semesterly $100 budget.
Arlington Bucks was created as an extension of the meal plan, part of the larger transformation that campus dining underwent in 2017. The semesterly $100 is part of the meal plan budget funded by students’ Cost of Attendance.
Prior to 2017, students had to choose from four meal plan options that ranged in meal swipes and cost (The Phoenix, “Comparing Meal Plans: Where Do College Students Eat Best?” 09.20.2012). Vassar also switched from its previous dining service, Aramark, to a more highly regarded company, Bon Appetit—a change many students believe has drastically improved the quality of campus food in comparison to previous years (The Miscellany News, “New meal plan should accommodate individual needs,” 04.16.2016).
Still, Arlington Bucks vendors are not only restaurants. Now home to the Dollar Yard, My Market II and the Juliet, this growing connection between the college and Raymond and Collegeview Avenues has reaffirmed the the area’s evolution into Vassar’s college town. The convenience of Arlington Bucks, however, seems to contribute to students’ unwillingness to explore what the rest of Poughkeepsie has to offer.
Despite the program’s name, any business, in or outside of Arlington, can participate in Arlington Bucks. To do so, a vendor must rent a swipe machine that can process those funds.
As of right now, the majority of businesses that participate in the program operate on Raymond Avenue. In an emailed statement, Assistant Vice President of Finance Bryan Swarthout highlighted that this is due to their proximity to the college.
La Cabañita, a Mexican restaurant at 763 Main Street, is an exception. Just blocks away from the intersection of Raymond Ave and Main Street, the eatery started accepting VCash and Arlington Bucks about four months after its opening on Nov. 2, 2018. Despite its relatively short distance from Raymond Ave, General Manager Elvis Pinelo stated only 10 to 15 percent of his clientele are Vassar students.
“Most of you guys are [traveling] on foot,” Pinelo said. “I’m sure a lot of students don’t even know we’re here because we’re a bit farther than BurgerFi and Crafted Kup.”
He revealed he plans to look into ways to spread the word about the restaurant and their involvement in Arlington Bucks.
Any establishment that accepts Arlington Bucks has to pay between $36 to $40 a month to rent its swipe machine, which Pinelo believes is a sizable fee in comparison to the little La Cabañita earns from Arlington Bucks. However, he values this partnership with Vassar. “Even though it’s not super profitable, it’s still nice to have that option if students need to use it,” he qualified.
In contrast, Crafted Kup barista Matt Patane estimated that around 50 to 60 percent of the coffee shop’s business consists of Vassar students, migrate off campus for liquid caffeine in droves. On any given day, the shop’s tables are occupied by a mix of Vassar and Marist students, who come to study and do homework with a bagel and coffee on the side.
There is an apparent unwillingness of students to travel too far on foot, even if those businesses accept Arlington Bucks. But sometimes juggling academics and campus activities leaves little room for students to get off campus and explore. Claire Coss ’22 walks to Crafted Kup roughly every other week and generally visits Raymond and College Ave three times a month. When she does venture off campus, she takes advantage of her Arlington Bucks every time. “I don’t really have a need for anything,” she admitted. “I eat most of my meals through on-campus dining.”
Jessica Mitchell ’21, who is not on the mandatory meal plan this semester, visits Crafted Kup at least once a week. In recent semesters, she has traveled off campus more frequently for groceries and other living necessities.
Looking back on the changes made to the meal plan, Mitchell believes the College has disincentivized students from exploring the greater Poughkeepsie area. She knows students who spend all of their time on campus.
“First of all, [students] have unlimited food at the Deece and have to be on the meal plan, and second of all, they have a limited amount of Arlington Bucks restricted in this area,” Mitchell explained.
Likewise, though the Bon Appetit meal plan improved campus life for Vassar students, Mitchell believes Vassar must critically consider its commitment to its students and to the community.
“I feel like Vassar’s obligation is the same as any other institution in the community [in that] you serve the people around you,” she continued. “I think Vassar has been trying so hard to make life easier for its students without realizing they are taking away a lot of the students’ time and money that can go into Poughkeepsie and not into Vassar.”
In a move to make the greater Poughkeepsie area and the entirety of Dutchess County more accessible to students and staff, Vassar entered a partnership with Dutchess County’s public transit system. Students and staff can ride the bus for free if they show their Vassar ID to the driver. The College reimburses the county at a rate of $1.75 per ride.
In her comments to the Office of Communications, President Elizabeth Bradley noted that the agreement would benefit students and staff who travel into the community for jobs, internships and shopping (Vassar Info, “Vassar College and Dutchess County Announce Bus Partnership,” 01.25.2018).
Vassar students or staff who ride the L Bus, which has a stop at the corner of Collegeview Ave and Fairmont Ave, can gaze through their window at Jamaican (Golden Crust), Mexican (El Bracero), Chinese (King Chef), American-style breakfast (Big Tomato) and traditional soul food (Royal Blends and Soul Food) restaurants that line the blocks of Main Street.
It takes one yank of the bus chord to hop off at one of these stops and saunter into a nearby restaurant.
Despite the accessibility the College’s collaboration with transit system promises, many students do not take advantage of it. Both Coss and Mitchell have not taken the bus, citing a lack of time and the inconvenience of the transit system, respectively.
If Coss does take a day trip outside Arlington, she travels with friends who have cars and dreads having to spend out of pocket at places that do not accept Arlington Bucks.
Two years ago, Vassar students like Coss and Mitchell who tired of the previous quality of campus dining would have taken advantage of any means to travel down Main Street.
A waitress at The Big Tomato at 697 Main Street for 30 years, Amanda Dalbo, remembers seeing students ride to the restaurant in groups of two to 10, packed into cars, pedaling on bicycles and rolling on skateboards.
Now, she serves less than a quarter of the student customers that The Big Tomato used to have.
“The ones that came here regularly that were loyal have graduated in the last two years,” she observed. “And we’re not getting the new faces like we used to.”
Dalbo noticed the decrease in Vassar students at the restaurant developed around 2017, coinciding with the many changes to the College’s meal plan. She did, however, point out that the meal program transformations are not entirely to blame.
The upscale restaurants and mainstream fast-food chains that now reside in the area were not here 10 to 15 years ago, according to Dalbo. Previous students only had so many choices.
“You guys now have the Tomato Cafe— that wasn’t there two years or three years ago,” she said. “And then you’ve got Chinese food next door, Popeyes on Main Street, Taco Bell and Wendy’s.”
Dalbo stated that College did not reach out to the restaurant about Arlington Bucks, though the owners have been meaning to look into how they can.
In the meantime, they miss seeing Vassar students fill the countertop seats and side booths of the diner.
“It’d be nice to see them come back,” she reminisced. “It’d be nice to have that little extra business.”